School leadership – effective for what? For whom?

Dan Belcher, Senior Education Lead SSAT, writes…

John Dewey had some answers over a century ago

The language of school ‘effectiveness’ has generally become accepted and normative. It is hard to argue against schools being effective, it sounds obvious.

However, there is a problem with this. Effectiveness is an instrumental tool and really only says something about the ability of certain processes in bringing about certain outcomes of identified aims (Biesta, 2009).

Effectiveness is not a value in itself, it is a measuring tool.

It has very little to say about whether or not those aims are desirable. To judge whether those outcomes are what we want or need, we need to refer to a higher set of values, which we might call ultimate values.

These values bring us back to fundamental questions about the aims and purposes of education.

Effectiveness has little to say about whether the aims are desirable

While celebrating ineffectiveness may sound like insanity, it depends whether what is being measured is actually desirable.

For example if the expressed outcome was to produce students with a robotic ability to reproduce facts at a pre-specified point (say end of year 11), then we might not be too distressed to be deemed ineffective if we are actually producing thinking, feeling, reflective, independent students.

That is not to say that equipping students to jump the hurdles put in front of them, and arming them with qualifications, isn’t valuable – but it may not be the primary goal of education.

What are your school’s values?

As Bogotch et al (2007) argued, instead of simply making a case for effective education we need to ask, ‘effective for what?’ And, given that what might be effective in one particular situation or for one group of students may not necessarily be so in another situation or for other groups, we should also ask, ‘effective for whom?’

For this we need to enter into a deeper conversation about what constitutes a good education and what education is for. The theme ‘why educate?’ is discussed by Dylan Wiliam in the SSAT Redesigning Schooling 3 pamphlet ‘Principled curriculum design’ (October 2013).

Dylan outlines four broad philosophies of education: personal empowerment, cultural transmission, preparation for citizenship and preparation for work.

The topic has also been the subject of a recent blog ‘The melody of education: what should we be accountable for?’ by The Learning Spy David Didau.

What is clear is that agreeing the purposes of education is not straightforward; diverse views exist and some are easier to measure than others.

The narrow view of school effectiveness that seems to predominate, certainly in the case of current accountability measures, is based on a school’s ability to get students to pass examinations at fixed stages in their development.

This, as many have highlighted, may be a classic case of valuing what is easy to measure, rather than measuring what we value.

Schools need to think about how they self-assess and celebrate the values of the school community

That is not to say that other things are unimportant – citizenship; preparation for the world of work; developing caring, happy, healthy people – but these aren’t what schools are ranked or judged on.

Tools to help schools

At the SSAT Aspirant Headteacher launch event last week, Dave Harris (former headteacher and MD, Independent Thinking) shared some tools that he has been working on with Professor John West-Burnham to help schools reflect on the their values system (from their book ‘Leadership dialogues – conversations and activities for leadership teams’, 2015).

Delegates were also encouraged to think about adapting or developing their own version of the ‘Good School Scorecard’ (Ian Gilbert, Independent Thinking, 2012) to self-assess and celebrate the values of the school community.

Statements like: ‘Children enjoy going to school’, ‘Teachers enjoy going to school’, and ‘Wonder, curiosity, bravery and resilience are actively encouraged and celebrated’ could be given a score from 1-5.

All this is not new, though its urgency has become greater of late. Over a century ago John Dewey (American psychologist, philosopher and educator), seeing the challenges of the changing world, set out his purposes for education in My pedagogical creed:

  1. The school should be an extension of the home and the community, understanding should be connected and useful for daily living.
  2. Manual and practical activity should be valued, as it is essential and meaningful to domestic communal life.
  3. The interests of learners themselves are of importance and should drive further learning.
  4. Knowledge is not purely symbolic and formal, it needs to be connected to experience. School subjects represent organisations of inherited knowledge, real world problems rarely fit neatly within subject boundaries. The value of knowledge lies in its usefulness, in enabling people to act intelligently in the world.
  5. Discipline shouldn’t rely on external authority but rather from internalized norms of living within and being an active member of the community.

(Dewey, 1897, quoted in Pring, 2007: 16-18)


Biesta, G. (2009) Good education in an age of measurement: on the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education. Springer Press.

Bogotch, I., Mirón, L., & Biesta, G. (2007). “Effective for what; effective for whom?” Two questions SESI should not ignore. In T. Townsend (Ed.), International handbook of school effectiveness and school improvement (pp. 93–110). Dordrecht/Boston: Springer.

Pring, R. (2007) John Dewey. Bloomsbury library of educational thought.

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